Despite several threats to its existence, Citroen has survived to reach its centenary in 2019. Often regarded as the quirkiest of the major French manufacturers, it has been famous for its innovative designs, and more recently for great success in motorsport. Here we look at some of the highlights of its first century.
Company founder Andre Citroen was born in Paris in February 1878 to a Dutch father and a Polish mother. He became a very successful manufacturer of armaments during World War I but realised that his main source of income would disappear when the war ended. He decided to use his factory for building cars, the first of which went on sale in 1919.
The Type A
That car, unimaginatively named the Type A, was cheap and simple, as many later Citroens would be. It was in production for only two years, but in that short time well over 20,000 were built.
The Citroen logo
The Type A’s rear axle gear had a double helical pattern. Andre Citroen had bought the patent for this design in 1900, while still in his early 20s. It inspired Citroen’s double chevron logo which appeared in the very early days of the company and is still, after several revisions, being used today.
Between 1925 and 1934, the Citroen name was ‘written’ in electric bulbs between the second and third levels on three sides of the Eiffel Tower, written in electric bulbs. The display was the world’s largest advertisement.
The Traction Avant
Citroen’s most radical car before World War II was the Traction Avant. Launched in 1934, it had front-wheel drive (which is what traction avant means), independent suspension on all four wheels and a bodyshell rather than a separate body and chassis. These were not new ideas, but they had never been used previously in a mass-production car.
1935 was a bad year for Citroen. Although the Traction Avant was a big success, its development costs bankrupted Citroen and led to the Michelin tyre company becoming its major shareholder. At around the same time, Andre Citroen (pictured above playing backgammon with his wife) died of stomach cancer at the age of just 57.
Less innovative than the Traction Avant, the Rosalie series nevertheless has a place in motoring history because in 1937 one version became the first production car with a diesel engine, beating the Mercedes 260D by a few months. The cylinder head of the Citroen engine was designed by the Ricardo company in West Sussex. The same cylinder head was used in subsequent Citroen diesels which were still being built as late as 2001.
Like Volkswagen’s Beetle, the 2CV, possibly Citroen’s most famous car, was developed in the 1930s but not produced in significant numbers until after World War II. An iconic car in its own right, it also led to the creation of other mechanically similar Citroens including the Dyane, the Ami and the Mehari off-roader.
The Slough Citroens
2CVs were built in other countries as well as France. One of the ‘foreign’ factories, opened in 1926, was in Slough, where Citroen had its UK headquarters. Slough was also the home of the Bijou, a short-lived version of the 2CV with a slightly more elegant fibreglass body. Unfortunately, it was very expensive, and the weight of its body meant that it accelerated even more slowly than the regular 2CV did.
Citroen startled the motoring world in 1955 by launching the DS, which was voted third in the Car of the Century awards 44 years later. Its features included hydraulic suspension, cornering headlights, high-level rear indicators and an incredibly futuristic design. If you pronounce the letters DS in French it sounds like you’re saying déesse, which means ‘goddess’. By the same process, the name of a simpler version called the ID is a pun on the French word for ‘idea’.
In the 1960s had a huge gap in its range between the 2CV and its derivatives at one end and the DS at the other. This was filled with the introduction in 1970 of the GS, later known as the GSA. A very rare version used a Wankel rotary engine, but this was very expensive and disastrously uneconomical. Citroen quickly abandoned the project. The engine was also used in a helicopter, a spectacular piece of trivia which you might find useful one day in a pub quiz.
Citroen and Maserati
Unlikely as it seems now, Citroen once owned Maserati. One result of this was the SM, a typically adventurous grand tourer with a Maserati V6 engine. It was launched in 1970 and lasted for five years before Citroen became bankrupt for the second time. The company did not build such a powerful model again until it introduced the 24-valve three-litre version of the XM in 1990.
The incredible swerving Xantia
Citroen was saved by a merger with Peugeot in the mid 1970s, and from then on the company became noticeably less adventurous. It did, however, break new ground with the 1994 Xantia Activa. This car had a development of the regular Xantia’s hydraulic suspension which reduced body roll almost to zero. In 1999, a Xantia went through the famous elk test created by Swedish magazine Teknikens Värld (Technology World) at 85km/h. Absolutely no other car – even the Audi R8 plus or McLaren 675LT tested in 2017 – has been able to match this.
You don’t see many Citroen Saxos on the road nowadays, but around the turn of the century it was incredibly popular among younger drivers. The were two reasons for this. First, Citroen offered one year’s insurance for anyone aged 18 or over, and second, the car, and in particular the aftermarket bodykits available for it, were heavily featured in the now defunct but once enormously successful Max Power magazine.
Kings of rallying
Citroen dominated the World Rally Championship for nearly a decade. In a Xsara, a C4 and latterly a DS3, Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena won it every year from 2004 to 2012, and might also have done so in 2003 if Citroen hadn’t ordered them to slow down on the Wales Rally GB in order to guarantee winning the manufacturers’ title.
One of the most fascinating Citroens of the 21st century so far has been the C6. A rare modern example of a large French saloon, it was tremendously refined and amazingly roomy, especially in the rear, but it never sold well. Citroen abandoned production after seven years in 2012. The current C6, built and sold in China, is a completely different model.
The Citroen World Touring Car team was created to enter the World Touring Car Championship in 2014, using a heavily modified version of the C-Elysee which was never sold in the UK. Jose Maria Lopez won the title convincingly that year, and again in 2015 and 2016, before the team was disbanded.
The DS spin-off
Today’s DS began as a sub-brand within Citroen. The first model was the 2010 DS3, related to the C3 but with very different styling. DS was later launched as a separate manufacturer within Groupe PSA alongside Citroen and Peugeot (and now Vauxhall and Opel), still with common technology but unique designs.